The Dynamo always relish the sense of importance, urgency and excitement that creates the special atmosphere of playoff soccer. Though Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Union is a regular season match, Ricardo Clark expects the occasion to have the flavor of a postseason encounter.
With plenty riding on the game at PPL Park (6 p.m. CT, CSN Plus/Telemundo), the midfielder is steeling himself for a tough night on the road at one of the Eastern Conference’s in-form clubs as the Dynamo once again look to make a late-season charge up the standings. Saturday’s match is a big chance to make up ground on the Union, who are five points ahead of Houston.
“It’s going to have that must-win vibe and mentality, it’s come down to the last part of the season in the last few years and in this league it’s always been very, very tight and competitive. So we’re looking forward to the challenge,” Clark told HoustonDynamo.com on Friday shortly before the team flew to the East coast.
Clashes between the Dynamo and the Union are usually hard-fought but Houston owns a strong recent record, with four wins and a tie in the past five fixtures. The sides drew 0-0 at PPL Park in April and Dominic Kinnear’s side won 2-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium last month. “The last game was a tight game but I felt like both teams had a lot of chances. I think we match up pretty similar to them formation-wise and that makes for a midfield battle,” said Clark.
The Union bolstered their options in the center of the field last winter by signing U.S. national team veteran Maurice Edu on loan from Stoke City. The 28-year-old, who has also been used in defense, is well-known to Clark and the two were both on the U.S. 2010 World Cup roster. Edu was named to the squad for last month’s MLS All-Star Game. “He’s definitely one of the top midfielders in the league … he’s one of their strong points,” Clark said.
Edu spent four years with Glasgow Rangers, where he lined up alongside new Dynamo Designated Player DaMarcus Beasley. “Any time you play against your friend there’s always bragging rights. Mo and I share a lot of memories together — Rangers, the national team. He’s a very good friend of mine. Hopefully it goes in our favor on Saturday and hopefully he has a bad game!” said Beasley.
He was already at the club when Edu joined in 2008 and the two Americans abroad became good friends. “He’s pretty savvy in the way he takes care of his business off the field, he’s independent like me, so it didn’t take much for him to get situated when he was in Scotland. When he first moved in we lived on the same street. We were close in that time and he’s done well with his career. He did well at Rangers, scored a lot of goals, especially against Celtic, and the fans love him for that,” Beasley said.
The 32-year-old has fond memories of his period in Scotland. “I enjoyed my time there, won a lot of trophies there. It was a nice time in that part of my career and Rangers is one of the biggest clubs in the world. Fans still write me on Twitter sometimes, Instagram, and say different things. I’m very grateful I played for that club,” he said.
Beasley has started five games since he ended his decade-long absence from MLS by joining the Dynamo in July. The physical, intense nature of the league did not come as a surprise the second time around. “It’s similar, pretty much the same from when I left it. It’s hard,” he said.
“It’s more the English style than anything. The quality obviously has gone up with better players than ten years ago but it’s the same mindset, there’s nothing different or nothing surprising about the league since I came back.”
Clark also spent time in Europe before returning to MLS with Houston in 2012 and quickly restablishing himself as one of the most tenacious midfielders around. He has developed a habit of coming up with vital goals, including two matchwinning strikes against Philadelphia in 2013.
Last year he scored a career-high four times — and he has already equaled that tally in this campaign despite missing nine matches through injury. He has found the net twice in the past three fixtures, including the winner in the 3-2 victory over the Montreal Impact. “I just try to make runs in games, I have a lot of ground to cover so I have to pick my moments and thankfully I’ve been able to put in a couple of goals and hopefully I can continue that,” he said.
“I’m concentrated on trying to get the win and let the goals fall where they may. Obviously I’m happy to contribute in different ways, whether it be scoring, covering ground … helping the team in any way I can. The goals are definitely good and on a personal level it’s good to add that to your stats but at this point I’m more focused on the win.”
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.